A return to Peru

Artisans like this weaver work at home. Photo: Sister Jeannette Filthaut


When Sister Shirley Morris SP returned to Peru after an absence of 25 years, she found many wonderful changes — and many things regrettably unchanged.

One of the original Sisters of Providence of St. Vincent de Paul at the Carabayllo mission in 1967, she was delighted to see that some physical conditions had improved over the years. But her pilgrimage to Peru also convinced her that much work remains to be done. The following are some of her thoughts on her January journey:

The welcome of the Peruvian people and the beautiful countryside we saw during our pilgrimage was inspiring, recalling to me a passage written by a Columbian Father: “Our first task in approaching another people, another culture, another religion is to take off our shoes — for the ground we are approaching is holy.” It was a passage I was to remember throughout our journey to some of the poorest places in this economically deprived South American country.

The highlight of my trip was a visit with our own Sisters of Providence in our mission territory of Carabayllo, where I saw many changes since my first missionary journey there 25 years ago. There were some better homes, electricity, and running water. Our former home is now a very well-organized centre run by an Oblate brother who kindly gave me a tour. A place for youth retreats, workshops, and meetings, its beautiful flowers and birds were a direct contrast to the bareness outside.

The Sisters’ new home is comfortable and simple with a lovely patio with trees and shrubbery — a wonderful oasis in the midst of the desert. However, the stark reality of the poverty around was very much a part of the picture as well.

The privatization of resource industries has led to massive layoffs. Labor rights previously obtained through long struggle have virtually disappeared. Currently 40 per cent of Peruvians are living in extreme poverty and street vendors have swelled to be an army of people who work endless days for little pay.

The basic necessities of food, housing and medicine are obviously lacking for many. Peru’s poor cannot afford portable water, sewage and light, let alone educational and health services. Collective kitchens where food is shared and prepared remain a reality for survival.

Pepe, one of our Associates, shared with me many of the injustices and the political, economic and social realities of the Peruvian people. He spoke of unjustly imprisoned victims of anti-terrorist legislation, and of the police and judicial procedures that seem forged to make it impossible for them to walk free, even years after proving their innocence.

There were, however, many beautiful moments on our journey, such as the wonderful evening the Sisters had arranged for us to share with the Associates, the two parish priests and Brother Leonard. The Associates began the evening with a prayer, followed by a sharing of stories. The Sisters had arranged for a fiesta with food and drink, and we sang songs and celebrated together. Letters from Sisters Joan Whittingham and Jeannette Filthaut, who had just returned from their visit to the community, were translated and read aloud.

As we reflected together, we tried to look at how we might promote a greater exchange between the north and the south. I spoke of exchange programs that take place in North American schools and wondered if there could be some form of exchange program between committed Canadians who wanted to experience the day-to-day realities of life in Peru, and vice versa.

The Peruvian Associates said this left them with a lot to ponder, and that they would continue to reflect on ways of inspiring people of the north and south to work for social justice, as well as to enable people to work for an increased awareness of global issues in the Christian churches in North America.

In closing, I read once again from the Columbian Father’s prayer: “Loving God, we know you love all peoples and that their ways and lands are holy. Help us to discover all your wonders in their faith, their lives, and stories. Send us your Spirit, and we will listen, learn, and meet you in your Holy Ground.”

Sisters Rose Healy, Irene MacDonell and Rose Marie Bokenfohr continue to be a wonderful source of inspiration and hope for the Peruvian poor as they walk with them and meet them on their holy ground. I thank them for the opportunity to experience this gracious hospitality and welcoming, which was beyond measure.

Sister Shirley Morris is Director of the Justice and Peace Office of the Sisters of Providence of St. Vincent de Paul.

Food is prepared and shared from sparsely equipped collective kitchens. Photo: Sister Jeannette Filthaut